February 17, 2012

Alumni Story: Elena's Seventh Program

You could say that Elena Portoles wins the prize for PMCA's 'Most Frequent Traveler.'  Since 1997, Elena has been on almost every single one of Peggy's programs, tasting and exploring her way across Italy, Spain, Morocco, and just this last month—India. 

Here, we interview Elena in the midst of her seventh program with Peggy, India: Tasting Royal Rajasthan. Moments later, Peggy surprised her with the ultimate thank you gift for being such a loyal guest: an invitation to be her guest on the upcoming 20th Anniversary Program in June! Elena was stunned and replied, "Terrific! Elba is the only trip I haven't been on."

During this anniversary year, we invite all of you to send in your stories, impressions, photos, and memories from the road. Photos, videos, emails—we want it all! Your stories keep us inspired to develop new programs, and to bring new groups to these destinations each year. 

PMCA: This is your seventh trip with PMCA. What keeps drawing you back to traveling with Peggy? And can you tell us where and when you started?

Elena: I'm fortunate to be able to travel. Back at home, I love to cook and to entertain, and traveling gives me inspiration for new recipes to make for friends. The best part of the trip is coming home and re-creating the many dishes. My neighbors wait in anticipation for my dinners.

I started with La Cucina al Focolare: Cooking by the Fireside, Peggy's first program in Tuscany, in 1997. I was in Europe on business and decided to add a week's vacation. The ad in my favorite cooking magazine caught my eye—cooking in Tuscany. I was in! Liguria was my second trip with Peggy, and Sicily was my third. Morocco was fourth and Thailand was fifth. Spain was sixth, and now India is seventh! I always go on the first ones, the maiden voyage as it were. 

PMCA: What do you like about the PMCA approach? 

Elena: I like that we visit local towns and villages, where we are people to people. Non-traditional traveling interests me. I love to visit the markets, meet the cheese makers, the bakers, and see how things are made, which makes it a real culinary experience. 

PMCA: You've told us that you have no problem traveling alone, so why do you choose to travel with PMCA?

Elena: With PMCA, I always meet nice people with common interests, in a comfortable environment. It's relaxing and interesting at the same time. I also make my own time during the programs. I set my alarm, get up early and get out. I don't want to miss a thing.

PMCA: Do you have a favorite trip? 

Elena: No! I love them all. I belong to a gourmet club and I cook everything I learn on the trips when I get back home. When my friends ask me for a recipe I tell them, "That's a $6000 recipe!" [Laughs.]

PMCA: Peggy has a particular style of leading a program. What do you like about it?

Elena: Peggy is so caring, knowledgeable and interactive. There's a million tour companies out there, but I don't need to be hopping around. I know Peggy and her style by now. Her trips aren't sightseeing tours, per se. We focus on the food while taking in the culture at the same time. That works for me.

PMCA: What about this seventh trip? Are you enjoying it? During your trip in Morocco, someone asked you if you were going to join Peggy in India and you shook your head, "Oh no. I've been to India and don't ever need to go back." What changed your mind?

Elena: Oh, I'm loving it! I was here for work the last time and it was less than pretty. When I read the itinerary and looked up the hotels, I thought this trip looked wonderful and it has been. Lovely group and we have been so well taken care of. It's beautiful. It has been worth every penny!

PMCA: Anything else you would like to add?

Elena: Can't wait for number eight!

February 14, 2012

Culinary India: A Cooking Lesson with Salma Husain

Today I had a cooking class with Salma Husain, a Persian scholar, noted food historian, and the author of The Emperor's Table, The Art of Mughal Cuisine

In Salma's home outside of Delhi, I watched as she and her cook of 28 years showed me how to temper spices in oil, make poori, chapati, and roti, potato curry, chicken torma and pea and corn pulao. A full menu!


In between dishes, as the aromas filled the room, Salma stood by the stove and told colorful stories and antidotes about the ingredients and the history of each dish. As she pinched spices with her fingers, she said, 'There's a wonderful story about a cook I once knew in the south of India. She came into the kitchen and saw a spoon next to the spices. She said, What is this?! God has given hands to you! Use them!"

A few notes and lessons from Alma, that I jotted down in her kitchen. I'm sure that when I turn back to these pages of my journal in months to come, a fragrant smell of cardomom and fresh ginger will waft out of the pages. 

Cardamon powder gives a touch of the exotic. Green is for seasoning, black for tempering.

Different lentils are tempered with different spices. 
Red lentils: cumin and onion
Yellow lentils: garlic and red chili
Whole mung: ginger slices, onion, and broken whole chili
Mung lentil: clove

Fish and vegetables are mostly cooked in mustard oil.

Onion paste: Fry onions until brown and crispy. Blend.
Garlic and ginger pastes are just that; garlic blended whole and ginger blended whole.

"Food is never served on the table without being tasted. It can always be repaired."

"Food without history is nothing."